4. ON THE LIST: ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM

Minorities are way more likely to live near polluters.

Every week, The Shit List shares one problem. Here’s what we’re adding.

THE SHIT:
You’ve heard about the dirty water in Flint, Michigan, where more than 50 percent of residents are black.

Well, contaminated water isn’t the only public health problem plaguing minority communities. Across the country, people of color are most likely to experience the consequences of pollution.

THE BACKSTORY:
Non-whites make up about 38 percent of the population — but they represent more than half of Americans who live near toxic waste sites. In fact, studies have shown that race is the single best predictor of whether or not your house is close to a hazardous facility.

Examples abound. Take Uniontown, Alabama, where residents live near a landfill brimming with coal ash — a toxic remnant produced by power plants. The ash was transferred to Uniontown, which is 90 percent black, after a major spill in a nearby white neighborhood.

Stories like this aren’t just anecdotes. They are pieces of evidence that demonstrate a national truth, confirmed by study after study.

In Richmond, California, residents live near five major oil refineries, enduring regular explosions. In 2012, a Chevron fire sent more than 15,000 people to the hospital with respiratory problems. Eighty percent of the city is black, Asian, Hispanic or Latino.

In University Place, a mostly black subdivision in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, residents live near a wastewater treatment plant that’s been expanding since the ’90s. As sewer flies moved in, parks were demolished. One resident described a “nasty mist” that smelled like a dead animal. Today, houses are abandoned.
 
Each case is slightly different — but the victims are the same.

THE FIX… AND THE KICKER:
The good news: there is a legal framework in place to combat what many call environmental racism, at least when the federal government is involved. The bad news: it isn’t working.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that federally funded agencies can’t discriminate on the basis of race. In 1994, President Clinton built on Title VI with an Executive Order, directing the EPA to examine whether its programs have adverse affects on minority populations. In other words, you can’t use federal money to clean up the air in a white neighborhood while ignoring the black neighborhood down the street.

Title VI is noble in theory, but ineffective in practice. Residents of University Place, for example, filed four Title VI complaints after the sewer flies moved in. They were all turned down by the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

That outcome is the norm. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity reviewed 265 such complaints dating back to 1996. The OCR rejected 162 without investigation, and dismissed 52. A Deloitte report concluded that the Office was neither timely nor effective.

“Time and again, communities of color living in the shadows of sewage plants, incinerators, steel mills, landfills and other industrial facilities across the country — from Baton Rouge to Syracuse, Phoenix to Chapel Hill — have found their claims denied by the EPA,” reporters wrote.

When government fails, the most vulnerable citizens suffer.

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